Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Review - Realms of Fantasy (February 2011) edited by Douglas Cohen and Shawna McCarthy

Stories included:
The Swan Troika by Richard Parks
Thirteen Incantations by Desirina Boskovich
Magpie by Mark Rigney
No Tale for Troubadours by Pauline J. Alama
The Time of His Life by Scott William Carter

Full review: Although Realms of Fantasy has had a somewhat uncertain future over the last year or so, with the February 2011 issue of the magazine it seems that there is reason to hope that its troubles are behind it. This is the first issue published fully under the direction of the magazine's new publisher Damnation Books, and it seems to be a fairly good start for them. Gone are the collection of formatting errors that plagued the last issue, and in their place is the Folkroots feature, which had gone temporarily AWOL. Although it is probably too early to say for certain, it seems that Realms of Fantasy is finding its way out of the unstable swamp waters it had found itself on, and back to solid ground.

The featured artist in this month's Artist's Gallery is Dominic Hardman, notable in my opinion as the artist who provides the excellent cover illustrations for Naomi Novik's Tremeraire series. However, as the article demonstrates, Hardman's artwork can be seen on the cover of The Amber Spyglass, The Hellbound Heart, Swords and Dark Magic, and numerous other books. Hardman's artwork is clearly influenced by Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta, but has both a more realistic and more magical quality about it. You can see his art on his website Bleeding Dreams. As noted before, this issue also sees a return to the print version of the magazine of the Folkroots feature, which goes into the history and lore of the femme fatale. Though the article draws upon a wide range of mythology and historical examples of the femme fatale, it never seems to come together and left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Perhaps the fact that the subject matter wasn't a classic element of folklore, like vampires, werewolves, or fair folk, served to undermine the article for me. In any event, though I was glad to see this regular feature back in the magazine, this particular iteration struck me as a subpar example.

However, the femme fatale article does lead to the first pieces of fiction in the magazine: The Swan Troika by Richard Parks, featuring a classic Russian folklore version of the trope - the rusalka. Pyotr, the narrator of the story, comes across one of these spirits of drowned women in the winter while traveling in his sleigh carved with swan decorations upon it. Because it is winter, the rusalka's river has frozen over, preventing her from dragging him to a watery death, and allowing him to convince her to accompany him to his great aunt's estate. Though the tale seems like it is going to involve a romance between a somewhat naive young man and a deadly spirit, it instead turns into a tale of tragic decisions, sad consequences, bitter regret, and finally retribution.

A tale of friendship, young love, and witchcraft, Thirteen Incantations by Desirina Boskovich captures that awkward age where an adolescent is still figuring out how to navigate their way through the minefields of adult relationships. Layered on to the story is the contentious relationship between a mother and a daughter, and undertones of almost incest as a child uses her mother's magically enhanced perfumes to unwittingly recreate the journey that led to her now slightly deranged mother and her long absentee father falling in love in their youth. In that way the story manages to be both a coming of age story and a reflection on lost innocence. Another coming of age story that comes full circle is Magpie by Mark Rigney. The story starts as Cath, an orphaned and lost waif, is taken in by Jackdaw, a mercurial magical thief, and then follows her life as she hones his twin crafts and journeys with him about the countryside. The story is about growing up, growing old, and eventually, renewing a cycle. Interestingly, while most such stories try to show how the actors have gained wisdom through their travails, in Magpie it seems that the message is that the cycle goes on fueled by little more than petty selfishness.

No Tale for Troubadours by Pauline J. Alama is the most "traditional" fantasy story in the issue, featuring a retired swordswoman called back to battle an encroaching band of trolls because there is no one else to turn to. Drawn by the legends of her exploits generated during her crusades against the infidel to seek out Ursula, also known as the "Maiden of Revie", a village priest finds instead a reluctant mother tired of the violence and horrors of war. While persuading Isabeau, her estranged former sorceress companion (who has since taken up vows as a nun) to join her, Ursula must come to grips with her past, her contentious relationship with Isabeau, and the indignities of getting older. Though the underlying fantasy setting - a post-crusades Europe with magic and monsters added in - is fairly conventional, the story is at least somewhat original and has an interesting resolution. The creepiest story in the issue, and also the best, is The Time of His Life by Scott William Carter. A man pressed for time finds a seemingly miraculous solution for his problem. The solution turns out to come with a price tag that seems obvious in retrospect, but transforms the blessing into a horrific curse. And like all of the most awful curses, this one turns out to be self-inflicted. A story of how dreams can turn into obsession, and the struggle to balance reality with perfection, it is scary, sad, and a little hopeful all at the same time.

The February 2011 issue of Realms of Fantasy is definitely the best issue in recent memory. In fits and starts, the magazine which has struggled so much for so long seems to be finally pulling together. With four good and one very good pieces of fiction, a strong featured artist and the return of the Folkroots column, plus the usual assortment of movie and book reviews, the magazine seems to be firing on all cylinders. Having been given up for dead twice in the last year, Realms of Fantasy seems to be back, and finally returning to form.

Previous issue reviewed: December 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: April 2011

Realms of Fantasy     Douglas Cohen     Shawna McCarthy     Magazine Reviews


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